This short film is part of Injustice Watch’s Essential Work project, a first-person storytelling series by young Black people in Chicago fighting racism and police violence amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
The young Black activists on the front lines of protesting against racism and police violence in Chicago are celebrated as freedom fighters by some and lambasted as troublemakers by others.
But whether you see them as heroes or villains, there’s much more to their identities than their radical public personas; they are human beings with myriad talents, hobbies, and dreams. Just ask Naira (born Chima Ikoro), a 22-year-old Chicago poet, organizer, and budding entrepreneur studying film and environmental science at Columbia College Chicago.
In “The allegory of the activist,” she pushes back on the dehumanization of Black activists, from Assata Shakur to the Black youth who led protests last spring and summer after the killing of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly 10 minutes. Ikoro calls on everyone, but especially those of us who work in the media, to celebrate the full breadth of activists’ humanity.
You can watch Naira perform her original poem in the video above, or read a copy of “The allegory of the activist” below. Click here to read Naira’s first-person account of last summer’s uprisings and her reflections on the need to lift up and support young people’s entire identities, not just their activism.
The allegory of the activist
did you know that Assata Shakur’s favorite color is orange?
that’s crazy right?
did you know her favorite breakfast food is pancakes
her drink of choice is red wine
her go-to album is “The Miseducation”
and when she was 7, she got a scar on her left knee that never left her
did you know I’m making this up?
I tried to google little-known facts about her, and all I could find were articles,
a media tug of war;
but nothing said great cook
nothing said dog owner.
her entire personality and life longlived snipped from her legacy the minute those cops
cut their lights on behind her,
did you know?
did you know that there are spaces in history made for her, designed to hold the framework of her name, the weight of her life, her real life, and do it well.
but instead, in May 2013
the United States declared Assata Shakur one of the FBI’s most wanted.
they put 2 million on her head
and on that day she made history,
because she was the first woman ever put on that list.
but this hole in history is a wide circle
they cut it right through the middle of existence
and pushed Assata in.
doesn’t matter what she wants to be,
or what she imagined her space in history to be shaped like,
on May 2, 2013, they decided for her.
a few months ago, someone told me
they did not know I wrote poetry.
I have been writing for as long as I can remember.
I learned how to fit words together before I was allowed to sit in the front seat — some people
learned the sound of my voice
before they knew my name,
and they called me poet.
I wonder what it was like the first time someone realized Assata makes quilts in her free time.
a person happens upon her at a market
and asks what she’s been up to.
she says “I have a vegetable garden; it’s doing really well.”
but that wouldn’t be interesting, would it?
if her life wasn’t an action film, filled with surround-sound explosions and heavy breathing,
would you even watch it?
have you ever cared to know if she likes flowers?
have you ever heard her name
in any context
aside from hero or villain …
have you ever even heard her real name?
do you even know my real name?
did you know that my comrades make music;
one of my friends makes comic books.
did you know that after an action
I go home.
I walk my dog.
I make citrus tea when I am anxious, and I have 12 plants.
I am not an activist when I visit my mom; I’m just the child she sends to get her a napkin
since I’m standing
and for months, I stood next to people
whose names only made headlines
when they stood on the front line
with think pieces
plastered over their faces.
they chop pieces of us into bite-size chunks
to fit hourlong press conferences
between the nightly news and dinner.
they don’t even include our full sentences
let alone the full paragraphs of our lives
did you know
they made this fight
a life sentence. a constant fleeing.
and they scroll past anything you do
that doesn’t involve being pepper-sprayed
when I speak
I can hear my feet, tap dancing on the wood
or the idea of it.
this is the allegory of the activist
when you decide you are fit to fight
someone scrapes away all the other pieces of your identity
without your permission
because they’re no longer interesting enough.
history will do what it sees fit with the lives of Black leaders whose shadows are shaped by the light of a legacy
they don’t define for themselves.
make them role models
make them martyrs
make them legends
when all they ever asked
was to be seen as human.
Chima “Naira” Ikoro is a 22-year-old writer and activist from the South Side of Chicago. She currently attends Columbia College Chicago majoring in film and minoring in environmental studies. Ikoro is one-fourth of a collective called Blck Rising that focuses on mutual aid and organizing in the city.